THE NONPROFIT THAT’S CHANGING THE WAY KIDS EAT & MOVE AT SCHOOL

This post originally appeared on Avocado Green Magazine

It’s a pretty startling, but not surprising reality: over one-third of children under the age of 18 in the United States are overweight or obese. We don’t know exactly all of the reasons for this epidemic just yet, but we do know how to help – with better nutrition and more movement. And Wellness in the Schools is doing just that. They see the time that children spend at school (about 12,000 hours between kindergarten and high school graduation) as the perfect opportunity to begin forming wellness habits.

Wellness in the Schools (WITS) is a national non-profit that teaches kids healthy habits to learn and live better with a noble vision: to end childhood obesity.

“WE PARTNER WITH PUBLIC SCHOOLS TO PROVIDE NUTRITION AND FITNESS EDUCATION, HEALTHY SCRATCH-COOKED MEALS AND ACTIVE RECESS PERIODS. OUR APPROACH IMPROVES STUDENT OUTCOMES AND DRIVES SYSTEMIC, LONG-TERM CHANGE, SHIFTING SCHOOL CULTURES.”

WITS began in 2005, in one New York City classroom, and has grown to host programs in more than 120 public schools across the U.S. To date, they’ve cooked over 11 million school meals and have led more than 54,000 hours of play.

Their holistic approach encompasses three areas: nutrition, active play, and growing and gardening food.

PS 87 WITS Chef Cynthia Tomasini conducts an apples lab in the cafeteria. Photo by Ari Mintz 10/17/2012.

FEEDING KIDS REAL FOOD

WITS works within public schools to help feed kids “real food” through their WITS Café program. Their chefs work with school cafeterias to completely recharge their offering from the menu to training staff and educating kids. They focus on implementing “from scratch” cooking, healthy recipes made from unprocessed ingredients, access to water, and expanding salad bars. Throughout the year they will even send chefs to prepare interactive meals at lunch time to help get the kids excited and involved. Their Chefs also lead WITS Labs, seasonal culinary and nutrition education classes for students. In the Labs, students prepare the simple, affordable, and healthy recipes that they will then experience at lunch.

“THE SESSIONS INTRODUCE STUDENTS TO THE IMPORTANCE OF HEALTHY EATING AND SEASONAL INGREDIENTS, INSPIRING THEM TO SHARE THEIR NEWLY ACQUIRED KNOWLEDGE WITH THEIR FAMILIES. PROGRAMS LIKE THESE HAVE BEEN SHOWN TO POSITIVELY INFLUENCE CHILDREN’S FOOD PREFERENCES AND BEHAVIORS, ACCORDING TO RECENT STUDIES.”

In addition, WITS Bits are 20-minute in-classroom lesson that use hands-on demonstrations to teach basic nutrition, such as “eat the rainbow” and how to avoid “sugar overload.”

GET YOUR KIDS COOKING

The quickest way to overcome picky, disinterested eaters at dinnertime is to get them involved in the process. Here’s a quick and easy fall recipe from WITS to cook with your kids.

FLATBREAD PIZZA OR PIZZA SALAD

Ingredients
6-8 ripe tomatoes, cored, seeded/chopped (approx. 3 cups chopped)
1/2 tsp salt
1 clove garlic, minced
3/4 cup mozzarella, shredded or cubed
2 Tbsp fresh basil, thinly sliced
1-2 Tbsp olive oil (optional)
6 6-inch flatbreads

Instructions
In a large bowl, sprinkle tomatoes with salt, stir and allow to stand for 5-10 minutes. Stir in garlic.

For pizza:
Divide tomato sauce between flatbreads.
Add mozzarella and basil. Cook in preheated 375° oven until cheese is melted and flatbread is warmed through, about 8-10 minutes.

For salad:
Cut or tear flatbread into bite-sized pieces.

Optional:
Arrange flatbread in a single layer on a cookie sheet; toast in preheated 375° oven just until heated through. Toss bread with olive oil. Stir bread into tomato sauce. Add mozzarella and basil. Season to taste with salt and additional olive oil, if desired.

Marathon Tips from Chef Ricardo, RDN and Coach Stephen

Whether you’re training for the New York City Marathon this November or inspired to get out and run because of it, we’ve got some tips to supercharge your running. 

Are you looking for a way to both eat a rainbow and boost your marathon prep? Beets provide our bodies with a source of dietary nitrate, which has been found to reduce blood pressure and increase glucose uptake by helping to expand blood vessels. A 2013 study that followed athletes who consumed half a liter of beetroot juice per day for 4 to 6 days found that the time to exhaustion during high-intensity exercise was extended by 16%. But don’t “beet” yourself down if you’re not a fan of beets: dark green vegetables such as spinach and arugula will provide our bodies with even higher amounts of nitrate!
Chef Ricardo, RDN

A 5-10 minute dynamic warm-up is all you need to enhance performance and reduce injury. Try this dynamic warm-up sequence consisting of: high knee walks, walking heels to butt, forward lunges, lateral squats, butt kicks, high-knee runs, straight-leg skips, side shuffles, and backwards running. The sequence starts slow then progressively gets faster. Start where you can and do what feels comfortable and you will be on your way to better runs.
Coach Steven, Sunset Park Prep & Charles O. Dewey Middle School, Personal Trainer

CookCamp 2017: “Creating the next Generation of Healthy New Yorkers”

“Just seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces when I give them something – that’s one of the best feelings in the world. It’s all about those moments when they say to me, ‘Mr. Daniel, that food was great today.’ That’s what matters.”

Daniel is a cook at PS 108, and he is one of the 20 participants of CookCamp 2017, a pilot program started through a partnership with Wellness in the Schools and the NYCDOE Office of SchoolFood. Ten SchoolFood cooks and their managers gathered at the Institute of Culinary Education from September 26th through the 28th for an extensive training on cooking nutritious, wholesome food for students. Each day was packed with activities, including events such as culinary lessons in the kitchen, a WITS Bit on the effect of sugar, a Q&A with our registered dietician Ricardo, and even quick exercises through WITS Fit Bits, led by Coach Errol. Celebrity chefs Alex Guarnaschelli of Butter, Evan Hanczor of Egg, and our own Bill Telepan provided delicious breakfast dishes, and spoke to the participants as well. Said Guarnaschelli, “If children know more about their food, chances are, they’re going to eat better. We can empower kids by providing healthy choices.”

 
“This was a project two years in the making, and it changed shape many times to lead to what we have today,” said WITS Chef Shani Porter, who helped execute this program along with Lab Instructor Victoria Baluk. Said Victoria, “CookCamp was designed to educate cooks over a three-day period to include training in the kitchen, but also to use a series of nutrition discussions to further understand why we are doing this.”

The initial inspiration for CookCamp began in the way that most good ideas take shape – around a shared meal. Council Member Rafael Espinal of District 37 saw on his calendar that an organization called Wellness in the Schools was in one of his local schools, providing a program that gave students access to healthy and nutritious food. His district has among the highest obesity, blood pressure and diabetes rates in the city, and a majority of students who attend school in the district qualify for free and reduced price meals. Espinal knew that the amount of education aiming to teach people how to improve health through diet was severely lacking. He decided to go meet Nancy and visit PS 89.

He was immediately impressed. “I walked in and saw this child carrying a plate full of tofu. I’d never even eaten tofu before. I pulled this child aside and asked him, ‘Do you really enjoy tofu, or is this program asking you to carry this plate or something?’ And he told me that tofu was delicious.” He met with the PS 89 head cook, Margarita, and also ate a school lunch with Nancy, a meal consisting of items like kale and hummus.

“I realized that this program is having a real impact not just in school, but in the homes as well. I couldn’t resist wanting to partner with WITS to figure out a way to expand from one school to many schools, especially high-need schools. I remember how unhealthy school lunches were, and the lack of access we had to nutritious food.” Espinal spoke from experience – he grew up in the very district that he now runs, and when he took office, his main goal was that no child in his district would grow up with the same needs and wants that he himself had as a child.

Espinal knew that he wanted WITS, and the Alternative Menu, in all 30 of his schools, and executed a plan to implement this over a three-year period. To advocate for funding, Espinal approached the Office of City Council and made the argument that while the city could invest in creating jobs to address socioeconomic needs, there also had to be a serious investment into people’s health and livelihoods. “WITS could help decrease health disparities, and the issues that stem from it. This leads to healthier people, which would not only affect my district, but would also have citywide implications. It would help create the next generation of healthy New Yorkers,” he said. Ultimately, Espinal was able to secure funding for 10 schools, including his alma mater PS 108, to participate in CookCamp. Espinal’s commitment also helped Wellness in the Schools secure funding from the New York State Health Foundation in support of CookCamps and an evaluation through Columbia University Teachers College. 

 
The food at PS 108 has changed quite a lot since the days Espinal himself was a student there. “Back then, we had all junk food. Hot dogs, sloppy joe’s, pizza. We had these hamburgers that we used to call ‘murder burgers,’ because they could kill you!”

Murder burgers were far from the list of meals that the CookCamp participants learned how to prepare. They separated into teams in the kitchen, and spent the afternoons chopping vegetables and simmering beans to make meals such as orange-roasted carrots, mushroom bolognese, and parmesan-roasted cauliflower. Prior to this, they’d learned how to store herbs correctly, how to plan for and maintain a WITS Salad Bar, and how to determine which knife was best for peeling fruits or cutting tomatoes.

Margarita, the cook Espinal had met at PS 89, was at CookCamp herself, co-teaching lessons with Shani Porter. She gave a short speech on the first day with the simple declaration, “Whether I’m upset or I’m happy, the kids in school are going to be there in the cafeteria. So I try to be happy, for the kids.” She followed that up by slyly saying, “And, I make good vegetarian chili. The children come back after many years to taste my beans again.”

In the first few hours of the CookCamp, there was already a spirit of openness and vulnerability with cooks, the WITS team, the SchoolFood staff, and guest chefs sharing everything from stories about their schools to the ways that the childhood obesity epidemic has affected their lives. Said one of the cooks, “My school is in a neighborhood where obesity has a high rate, and I’ve grown up overweight myself. But now, you walk in the door of my school and the food smells so good, and kids are eating. And I’m learning myself how to eat healthy too.” Another cook commented, “When I first came to the school, there was this lady making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day for the kids, because that’s all the kids wanted and were eating. But now, I feel so happy that the children are eating the food that I am cooking.”

Many of the cooks were disappointed that the training was coming to the end, and verbally expressed that it could last longer than three days. Some came up to the WITS staff and said that this was one of the best trainings they’d ever had (one cook even baked Coach Errol a surprise cake!). Said Victoria, “The feeling is mutual. Wellness in the Schools considers the cooks in SchoolFood kitchens to be heroes. They are the people on the front lines, so to speak, that are making our vision – to end childhood obesity – a reality. At Wellness in the Schools, our mission is to teach kids healthy habits to learn and live better, but we also want to do the same for those with whom we are partnering – these SchoolFood Managers and Cooks.”

Although the training is over, there is still a lot to be done. Said Shani, “Change is not going to happen overnight. If we all have the same goal – to fight childhood obesity, feed kids real food, and live healthier lives through food and fitness – it’s going to take time, it’s going to take effort, it’s going to take us working together to execute this vision the best way possible.” The CookCamp model provides for Shani to conduct follow-up site visits two times a month and ensure that schools are meeting program goals. CookCamp created a solid foundation for powerful change, and it could not have happened without everyone involved – SchoolFood, WITS, the Institute of Culinary Education, Council Member Espinal, and of course, the school cooks and managers.

The Sky’s the Limit with Erica Huss, Co-founder of BluePrint Juice and New Wellness in the Schools Board Member

In her own words . . .

When we launched BluePrint Cleanse in 2007, the goal was to bring the benefits of juicing to a mass audience and raise awareness on the importance of adding fresh raw vegetables and fruits into your diet to achieve optimal health.  We were really struck by how much confusion was out there around what constitutes a “healthy” diet.  It’s not about a miracle pill or a magic bullet, it’s about consuming fresh, minimally processed, real food.

As an entrepreneur in the healthy food industry, it’s been really exciting to see how much more of an interest people are taking in their health and what they put into their bodies, and how their food choices affect them, impact their families, and ultimately the community at large.  But while it’s encouraging to see so many new products and brands dedicated to helping people feel better and live well, there is a bit of an imbalance in terms of who has access to better food options.  In my opinion, there should be no limit on that type of opportunity.

It’s our responsibility to make every effort in extending the basic right of good health as far as possible, through whatever kind of giveback program a business can support. Beginning with BluePrint, and through my subsequent ventures, I have always aimed to strike that balance between giving the customer the product or service they want, and contributing to the underserved audience in a meaningful way. I was a New York City public school kid, so for me, helping support a better nutritional upbringing for the same kids felt like the most authentic connection I could make. Wellness in the Schools was doing it in a way that felt special to me. It’s not just an isolated class where kids learn about nutrition for a day; it’s a long-term plan with measurable results, which creates the systemic change that our schools need.

Teaming up with Wellness in the Schools in alignment with my business goals was the start, but I realized that regardless of what I could do through my company, I just wanted to participate however I could.  I am thrilled and proud to be part of such a special organization, and I look forward to seeing where our collective efforts will take us. Entrepreneurs believe the sky’s the limit, so that’s the approach I hope I can help to instill into everyone connected to Wellness in the Schools.

WITS Chefs Move to Broward Schools

The Chefs Move to Schools movement is alive and well, and we are taking it to new levels in South Florida this year. After a solid year of partnership with Broward County Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services, this year we have collaborated on a plan to leverage our growing list of chef partners to introduce students to new healthy and delicious recipes.

Once a month, one of our chef partners will join the Broward County school cooks to prepare and serve a healthy recipe at lunch time. By the end of the school year, ten chefs will have participated in these special WITS Cafe Days, each using a different recipe on the federal procurement list. The objective is to test out these recipes and to implement them on the school lunch menu. Eventually, we will incorporate all recipes onto a new menu and train more cooks in order to to provide more children with scratch-cooked, delicious lunches.

WITS Chefs Move to Broward Schools kicked off in October with Miami Chef Michael Schwartz. The Genuine Hospitality Group prepared his kale pizza on October 16 at McNicol Middle School, and on October 18 at Watkins Elementary. Chef Clark Bowen of DB Bistro Moderne will follow with a black bean and plantain quesadilla, and Chef Aaron Brooks of Edge Steak & Bar will unveil the famous WITS vegetarian chili in December. In the spring, local chefs will each choose a month to continue the momentum begun in the fall.

This year, we have made a big leap in Miami-Dade County, as well. The main victory? Roasting vegetables. After a year of forging relationships and gaining trust through training, Florida Program Director Allyce Perret-Gentil reported that the schools have received the green light to begin serving roasted vegetables on the lunch line. She has remarked that “this small act of roasting vegetables is making change at home.” Giving kids access to vegetables cooked in different ways increases their chances of trying them. “Food has become more of a family subject, and children are encouraging their parents to cook more,” said Allyce.

These new developments in our Florida chapter are opening more opportunities to train, teach, empower, and create change through food.

Back to School, Back to Routine, Back to . . . Running the NYC Marathon?

Fall in New York is one of my favorite seasons.  As much as I love summer, its sense of freedom, and the hot weather (can’t take Florida out of the girl), by September, I welcome the order and routine.  And, I love back to school!  I love seeing the faces of the eager, yet sometimes anxious, young children who have that huge sense of wonder in their eyes.  I love watching them in the cafeteria devouring greens and raw veggies from the salad bar, or on the recess yard running around with their rosy cheeks and sweaty faces.  It is a happy time. This year, back to school for Wellness in the Schools means 4 states, 122 schools and over 60,000 children. Thanks to so many friends in our city, this year is unprecedented as all 1.1 million NYC children – from Pre-K through 12th grade – will have access to universal free school lunch. The importance of our work in partnership with the NYC DOE has catapulted!

We continue to grow and refine our programs, while also developing new methods of implementation that will help us to serve more schools and kids.  Read more in our CookCamp feature as a great example.

There is no better way to speed dial right into routine than to train for a race – the New York City Marathon, to be precise. With equal amounts of chiropractic, acupuncture, meditation and . . . . oh, running, I am training for the NYC marathon (again). I will run (again) with the Wellness in the Schools team.  I will run to end childhood obesity.  This year is particularly special because 4 of our 5 runners are WITS staff members!  As we grow, we do not need to look far for healthy, eager runners. Please meet our awesome team here  and support their efforts.

For me, this year is special because it feels like it might be my last marathon (at least in this decade). Gone are the days where I could decide on a Friday that I will run a marathon on a Sunday.  I nursed an injury all summer, and then started on my 10-week training program.  While I cannot promise the outcome, I can say that I am following my program with precision and determination – the kind I have not shown since college.  I need it.

I have been asked to share tips on how I keep up my training – year after year – as this has been my way of life (marathon or no marathon) for over 30 years now. Here’s how:

1)    Training keeps me happy, sane and centered. People ask how I stay in shape, and my answer is: “I want to stay happy; staying in shape is a by-product.”

2)    I meet a friend for a workout at least twice a week. This not only makes a workout fun and social, but it also forces me to get out of bed or get out on the road on a hard day. And, the problems we solve on those longs runs or bike rides….

3)    I sign up for races – even just for fun – with friends at all levels of competition, as something to work towards and to look forward to.  The party afterwards is always the best part. Again, I make it social.  We are all so busy, so we combine our desire to stay happy and healthy with our desire to be together and support each other.

4)    I literally look at my schedule each week and rearrange workouts (and even work calls or meetings) to make sure I get my exercise high.  I essentially prioritize a workout as much as I prioritize an important meeting.  Indeed, I am much better in that meeting if I am consistent with my workouts.

Many are already asking how they can support.  Thank you.  Click here to check out my fundraising page. I am open to wagers on my time.